What to do when your design career stalls?

over 3 years ago from , Senior UX designer

I'm experiencing the opposite of imposter syndrome. I have the ux skills and experience (a decade so far), but I'm unable to get a new job. I know my local market is too small so I'm happy to relocate, but no one will take me serious in my willingness to move.

I've experienced several rejections lately, plenty of ghosting, and no offers. Shopify was probably the worst, especially since they came to me, dragged me out to Ottawa and then rejected me with little actionable feedback. I can't get honest feedback; why don't people like me. One job rejected me because I didn't have a skill I genuinely have (ux research). In the next interview I made sure to highlight that experience in previous roles, and was again rejected for not having research experience. Could that be code for 'your solution was terrible therefore you are flawed understanding the research'?

So with a decade of experience, I can neither move up the ladder to a design manager role, nor land another individual contributor role. All the mentoring groups are for designers just starting out. Reaching out for advice from more experienced designers hasn't panned out either.

Have you ever googled 'ux design headhunter' or 'ux design recruiter' because the search results don't help? Nothing but job ads, even a bunch of jobs google crawled but no links to actual headhunters.


  • Marcel van Werkhoven, over 3 years ago

    One thing that helps is that people get more excited about who you want to be compared to who you are. So present yourself as a design manager if that is what you want to do, instead of a senior UX designer. Focus on what is in your future instead of what is in your past. Also, I can feel the frustration in your post. Hide that in any future job interview. Act like you're just testing the waters to see what they can offer you. If someone asks you to move, you should not give in too easily. That shows that in fact, you have nothing going on, so moving is on your only option. In that case, you're probably not that good? They don't know about your local market. Tell them that you're willing to move if the offer is good enough for you to give up what you have going on..

    As for the next step in my career. I was always more of a strategy guy than a designer myself even though I enjoy both. However, I could never get people to catch on that yes, our agency did both ux/web/product design and strategy even though I'm one of the owners and mentioned it in every proposal and quote. "Oh, we liked everything about you, but you don't do strategy". In fact, even some clients we did strategy work for, did not understand it as such. It drove me nuts. So I simply started introducing myself as a 'Digital Strategist' first and I pull out a whiteboard at the very first meeting to draw out the project steps. Immediately they understand: "Oh that's the strategy guy!".

    2 points
    • , over 3 years ago

      Thank you for your words. I'm quite good at suppressing frustration during an interview (and to be fair I'm focused on so much else). Forums like this are where I channel my venting. I tend to tailor my message to the role I'm applying / interviewing for, whether that means putting myself forward as someone with management experience, or focusing on pure design experience.

      0 points
  • Will Vaughan, over 3 years ago

    I've definitely felt the frustration from applying, interviewing, and then being rejected without feedback - especially when the company initially approaches you!

    Some tips that have worked well for me is to get feedback on your portfolio presentation with other designers with similar or more experience - especially those who are typically involved in the hiring process. I've also received similarly confusing feedback at times ("you don't have enough visual design" or "you have too much of a visual design focus"). It's hard but try not to get too wrapped up in this and just focus on highlighting your experience throughout the interview process.

    Lastly I have a number of friends who have found it similarly difficult to move into management. Part of the problem is that the number of roles is just less than the number of IC roles.

    Feel free to reach out to me directly if there's any way I can help.

    0 points
  • Du HoangDu Hoang, over 3 years ago

    I wouldn't look at it as they didn't "like" you. Rarely do people hire based on 'liking.' More often is about 'fit' for the role.

    But to answer your question, there is nothing wrong with being a careered IC. That is not a red flag or anything. Employer understands that not everyone wants to be a manager, and when hiring for senior designer, they want people with decades of experience.

    I would specialized, though, as a career IC. Be an expert at certain design realm, and you will get paid top money for your expertise and not compete with a bunch of new designers lacking your experience.

    0 points
  • Dan GDan G, over 3 years ago

    Do you have some work to show? What level of designer are you going for? Are you only going for jobs at the top, top places?

    0 points
    • , over 3 years ago

      Any job at a senior/lead/experienced level. Some are 'top places' and some are not. We're not talking Apple or Google... second and third tier.

      But I'm raising this question more broadly, rather than show work (or in my case a lot of process). Is a decade of UX design experience without a major promotion a bad sign? How are people reinventing their careers?

      0 points
      • Weston VierreggerWeston Vierregger, over 3 years ago

        Is a decade of UX design experience without a major promotion a bad sign?

        I would say a decade of experience in any job without a promotion (or something to show for it) is a bad sign. Why were you never promoted? Why did you stay despite not having upward mobility or increasing your responsibility (e.g. in the form of directing or managing others)? If you have good answers for these questions, state them. In my experience, if you don't have much to show for your work it insinuates your work wasn't useful. In the tech industry, I would say a promotion or change in responsibility is expected every 2-3 years unless you're very senior or principle level. And if you aren't getting those changes at your job after 4 years you should be interviewing for roles elsewhere.

        At a company like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Netflix, etc. your research should have metrics that prove your effectiveness as a designer. For instance, you should be able to show your work and include data such as "this increased MAU's by X%", or, "this feature lead to an observed $X million increase in sales", or whatever. Also when it comes to research, you should speak directly to your hypothesis, testing methodology, experiment design. All of this should be meticulously documented automatically if you're doing actual UX research as part of your process.

        But lastly, it sounds like your portfolio of work in general just isn't up to snuff. If you've been working for 10 years, are you still coming up with modern solutions to modern problems? Have you adapted to today's trends and tools? There are hundreds or thousands of senior UX roles being filled at tier 1 companies by people with none-to-very-little hands-on research work based on the strength of their thinking, or their visual design skills, or their ability to adapt into other roles such as motion, prototyping, etc.

        4 points
        • Darren Krape, over 3 years ago

          All of what Weston said is really good.

          One additional thought: A lack of promotion isn't necessarily bad. I know plenty of designers who just want to be designers, don't want to move into management (which is a totally different job), and aren't really in a position to become a "Principle" designer (smaller companies/few such roles/etc.). However, a lack of movement, growth, working on bigger/different projects and so on for several years would be concerning. Things change, and invariably get more complicated, so it is important to show you can change and improve, irrespective of job title.

          0 points
        • Chris KeithChris Keith, over 3 years ago

          This is great feedback and agree with your sentiments around being able to show and prove that you are good at solving problems with digital products.

          To the OP: everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and I recommend taking inventory of that so you know what areas you need to shore up. The most successful designers I’ve observed have high self awareness.

          In your post you said “I have the skills and experience” but I would be thinking about what skills and experience you don’t have yet that may help you tell a compelling story about what kind of a designer you are. Visual design, design thinking, prototyping, motion design, written communication, product strategy, data orientation, are all dimensions you should be thinking about as a UX/Product Designer. Google hires T-shaped designers, many other top tier companies value generalists.

          Are you consistently learning new things and working outside of your comfort zone? If not, your career may start to become a reflection of that.

          0 points
        • , over 3 years ago

          Great feedback from everyone! I really appreciate the helpful suggestions.

          Pardon my lack of clarity. I've at least been prompted to a senior/lead level in the past. However this is where I've plateaued. I did leave a company because there was no direct route to the next level. To be fair, if it appears that I've never been prompted, that could reflect poorly.

          That said (I'll say this a few times), there's nothing wrong with being happy staying an IC, and it's unfortunate that most companies only offer better salaries when you go to the management side. (I'm stealing that thought from the most recent Product Breakfast podcast)!

          And Weston, thanks for the tip on adding data. With only tier 2 or 3 company experience, those aren't processes I've had to encounter.

          0 points